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Carl Sandburg

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a two‑story rectangular brick house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys; it is partly overgrown with roses or ivy. The front door is arched with a fanlight. It is the Francis House in Kewanee, Illinois.]

Fred Francis House, Kewanee, Built 1890's.

 p178  Eccentric Inventor's Home

One of Illinois' most unusual houses, designed, built, and occupied by one of the most unusual characters in the recent history of the state, stands on the outskirts of Kewanee. Now owned by the city and maintained as a museum, this curious dwelling annually attracts hundreds of visitors who come to view the eccentric home of an eccentric man — a man who was an inventor, mathematician, artist, scholar, horticulturist, and recluse.

In this house lived Fred Francis, who died in 1926 at the age of seventy. As a dramatic climax to his strange career, he left an unusual will, which provided that his house and forty-acre estate, valued at $50,000, be given to Kewanee for a museum and public park — that is, under certain stipulations. The main one was that his body be cremated on a pyre of cordwood in his back yard and the ashes buried, coverless, in the earth.

If possessed of a romantic imagination, Francis was a realist, too. In his will he added that if the health authorities objected to the public cremation in his yard, his body was to be disposed of in a crematory. He summed up by saying if the city officials failed to carry out this provision of his will, his forty-acre estate and house were to be given to his alma mater, the University of Illinois. A graduate of this institution in 1878, he had displayed exceptional mathematical talents while there.

Shortly after the death of Francis, the Kewanee City Council, at a special meeting, provided for the carrying out of the terms of his will. One of these was that the house was to be opened only "when it is safe to do so without admitting flies or mice." It has been said that provisions of the will are being adhered to, but the "flies-and‑mice" clause gives the caretakers many a bad time.

One Francis' phobias was a particular horror of flies. To deal with this aversion, and also to indulge his tastes and hobbies, Francis designed an abode which is a unique example of the truism that the house reflects the man. Outstanding as an inventor, he conceived automatic-action doors and windows. When a window is opened, a screen automatically drops to keep out the flies. He obtained water from a huge cistern, "so designed that it was filtered, heated and syphoned into a marble bathroom."

Many household conveniences now in general use were enjoyed by Fred Francis in his dwelling years ago. He is said to have been one of the first to use air conditioning in a home. He accomplished this by  p179 building a tunnel from his orchard to the house — which brought in fresh air, cooled by passage through the tunnel. A favorite haunt was his basement workshop, and here he operated his various machines with power obtained from a shaft and windmill arrangement.

At one corner of his abode stands a conservatory which he designed. It is heated in winter by a skillful arrangement of steam pipes. Here he nurtured his favorite plants and engaged in horticultural experiments.

In the various rooms of his house, rooms arranged at different levels, are displayed many paintings from the brush of the recluse. He had unusual gifts as an artist and showed discrimination as a collector of art objects. His ability as a mathematician is demonstrated in the dining room. Here, on one wall, are geometric symbols which Francis claimed were proof of the solution of various difficult mathematical problems. He is said to have been one of the outstanding mathematicians of the Midwest.

Obviously, Francis could not have built his house, with its many innovations, unless he had had the means to do so. His income was derived from royalties on patents, mostly in connection with watches — he had been employed for eleven years by the Elgin Watch Company.

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Page updated: 8 Jun 08